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Category archive: Reading

Tuesday June 24 2008

I just clocked this:

Walking along the road, half watching the oncoming traffic, as you do. Car, car, truck with “beer” written on it, car, car.  Daughter - “I hate beer” … long pause … me - “did you just read that?”, daughter - “yes” (like it’s no big deal). OK. I guess she’s started reading then.

That’s the entire posting.  But what a posting.

Thursday April 03 2008

imageIn the course of reviewing Who’s Your City? How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life by Richard Florida, which is about what makes cities successful, Steven Malanga has this to say about what Florida has to say about education:

Now that Florida has discovered how important a school system is to his target audience, in Who’s Your City he must now give his two-and-a-half page riff on what’s wrong with public education in America. His assessment boils down to this: we’re still teaching kids as though we were in the industrial age, trying to force them into rote learning instead of unleashing their creativity and allowing them to learn flexibly. Florida doesn’t seem to know that one reason so much public education has gone off the rails in the United States is that curricula developed in our education schools starting in the 1960s and 1970s tried to do exactly what he proposes - make learning a more inner-centered, “natural,” and creative process, while ignoring the basics. Today, for instance, kids are taught to read through “whole language” courses that dispense with what educators deride as the “drill and kill” of learning phonics in favor of classroom interactions with classmates and minimal teacher guidance. Though we now have a mountain of scientific evidence showing that whole-language instruction doesn’t work nearly as well as phonics-based instruction, “the resistance from many educators to [teaching phonics] has been palpable,” according to the National Council on Teacher Quality. Educators cling to ineffective techniques precisely because many share Florida’s romantic, misguided notion that they must find ways to unleash students’ creativity. Indeed, when Florida praises foreign elementary-education systems over America’s, he seems unaware that most of them are far more traditional in their curricula, and far more standardized in their teaching (many countries require that the same curricula be taught in all of their schools), than America is.

I believe in unleashing students’ creativity by teaching them to read and write, which works best if you use phonics.  Illiteracy, I believe, leashes creativity.

Tuesday January 22 2008

Another Tuesday, another evening helping out at Kings Cross Supplementary.  I came away from this evening’s efforts very content.

One of the things that got me down about the previous school I helped (or tried to help) out at, which I used to call Paradise Primary (mostly because of the lavish physical surroundings), was that the longer it went on, the worse it got.  Basically, the children I was teaching gradually worked out that I had no power over them, and that they could do as they pleased.  At first, things went well, for as long as the fear of the unknown pertained, but gradually it became futile.  Plus, being on my own in the common area of the school, while the real teachers operated in their own classrooms behind closed doors, I never got a chance to discover what decent teaching looked like, or, perhaps more fundamentally, how much teacher stroppiness was regarded as okay, and how much was too much, which meant that I probably erred on the side of not enough.  Not enough, that is to say, to get any teaching done.

At Kings Cross Supplementary, I can feel myself becoming a better teacher.  But it’s not just me getting better, it’s the rules of the place.  All the children at Kings Cross Supplementary are there because their parents have chosen and paid for them to be there.  So, if a child refuses to do what we reasonably demand, assuming that it is reasonable, he will be in trouble at home as well as getting into a fight with us.  Maybe I’m deluding myself, but I get the feeling that, in this regime, I might one day become so good at teaching that I might even become the kind of teacher that a child might choose to be taught by, might actually want to be taught by.  What I am sure of is that I am already becoming better at being the kind of teacher that parents want their children to be taught by.  They want me to cajole, urge, intimidate, charm, frighten, coax, their basically defenceless progeny into becoming better educated.  And I’m getting better at that.

This evening, for instance, I did the same thing as I did the week before.  First hour: Small Boy.  Second hour: helping Mr Vora with his maths class.  Setting aside Mr Vora (which is disrespectful but it will keep this posting to a manageable length), I found myself doing better than usual with Small Boy.  I don’t think it was any one thing, more a whole range of things, working in combination with each other.  Including ...

The Butterfly Book.  Sorry to keep going on about this, but it really is very good.  Just about foolproof, in fact.  Just do what it says.  I do.  It works, at any rate on Small Boy.  I also followed, more than previously, Irina Tyk’s advice about not digressing from how it sounds to what it means.  See the end of paragraph two of this posting.  This meant we made speedier progress, and kept things simple and unconfusing.  In fact, Small Boy got really into it, and seemed to be quite enjoying himself.  Nothing like understanding everything and knowing all the answers to make you content.  Last week we went from Lesson One to Lesson Three.  This week: Four to Nine.

At Paradise Primary I was sent in to the school armed with an utterly defective and in some parts just plain wrong doctrine of how to teach reading and writing.  These Supplementary Schools, on the other hand, have a doctrine about how to teach reading and writing that seems wholly correct, and in which I have complete confidence.

I took my own advice (see my thoughts at the end of this posting) about being more of a confident man.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, or if not what you should be thinking.  If I can’t do Alpha Male body language and assertiveness to one six year old, then I really must be some kind of an idiot wimp.  Indeed.  I’m just saying, I was more Alpha Male this time than hitherto.  And this also seemed to work.  After all, Small Boy had to be there.  It was compulsion either way.  Was it straight take-it-for-granted compulsion or do-anything-you-want-except-what-you-actually-want-which-is-run-about compulsion, compulsion-with-apologies, and this time I tried straight compulsion.  He seemed happier, or at any rate no more unhappy.  (There’s at least an entire blog posting in that conundrum.)

The compulsion was tempered with praise.  I made Small Boy do what I wanted, but when he’d done it, I said well done.  All that I see and all that I hear and all that I read tells me that the human animal (unlike the dog animal) responds best to and learns best from praise rather than criticism and punishment.  Correct all errors in a deadpan, matter-of-fact way.  (That’s wrong.  It’s no big deal, but it is wrong.  Don’t worry, you’ll soon get it.) But, tell them what they did right with great enthusiasm and warmth.

In between bouts of demanding obedience, and geeing along with praise, I allowed short breaks, during which Small Boy could tell me anything he wanted to (today it was a discussion about the baleful effect of large class sizes at his regular school), and which I ended by resuming the lesson after what I considered to be a proper interval of time.

I daresay an informed observer with a video camera could have spotted several other things I did right, and several other things I’m still doing very wrong.  Which I trust I will learn about and work out in the weeks and months to come.

Two things strike me about this resumed blog, so far.  First, not many other people are reading it, as yet.  But second, the writing of it, and then the re-reading of it, is doing me a power of good.

Wednesday January 16 2008

Trawling through the educational “news” is to immerse oneself in an endless litany of disappointed hopes and missed targets.  So instead of writing about any of that today, I will write about another little detail that Irina Tyk mentioned in the talk she gave on Saturday.

It was to do with blending.  When you start teaching reading with the Butterfly Book, you don’t start with the names of the letters, but with the sounds they make.  (Names come later.) And right away, in lesson one, you are teaching blending.  You get a few sounds, the sounds made by a, n and t, and you start making little words out of them.  Ta.  At.  Na.  An.  Tan.  Ant.  Nan.  Tat.  Blending begins at once.  And no, I don’t know what “na” is either.  That doesn’t matter.  What matters is making the right noise.  What “ant” means is also digression.  Do not interrupt the teaching of reading with a lesson about insects, or asking whether the kid knows what an ant is.  (I used to do this.  Now, I will stop.)

Anyway, what Irina Tyk said was that what you must not do when teaching blending is assemble a number of separate syllables, and then try to put them together.  So, if the task is to get the child to read “together”, what you do not do is break together up into “to”, “geth” and “er”, and then try to bolt all that ... together.  Blending is done from left to right.  If you do need to soften the complexity of it, then cover up “gether” behind a bit of card, leaving only “to” visible.  Then slide your card rightwards, and leave “togeth” visible.  Then slide it again, revealing all of “together”.  You should not cover up “togeth” in order to show that the end goes “er”.

Interesting.  Well, I think so.  In general, Irina Tyk gave me a lot of confidence that she knows exactly how to teach people to read, with all extraneous stuff stripped out of the process.  So if on some particular matter I don’t get why she says whatever she says, I am inclined to take her word for it.

Saturday January 12 2008

Today, as flagged up yesterday here, I attended the Supplementary Schools training day.  There were several little talks by various teachers, all helpful, and one big one to start with, by Irina Tyk, the writer of the Butterfly Book (see below).  She said many interesting and helpful things.  I believe that I am now significantly better at teaching reading than I was.

To me, the most interesting thing she said concerned the matter of abstract knowledge.  The trend in education during recent decades has been, she said, to relate all learning to already existing feelings and sensory experiences of children.  If new abstract knowledge is being presented, it is done so by connecting it to sensory experience, like colours, feelings, shapes that they already know, gestures they can do.  This is a mistake, she said.  Learning to read means mastering the connections between abstract symbols and sounds.  Do not, she said, climbing onto what was clearly one of her hobby horses, confuse the letter S with a snake, as a lot of teachers apparently like to do.  (Can snakes be hobby horses?  Yes they can.) Doing that only confuses, by introducing N, A, K and E, with all the irrelevant and confusing thoughts those notions might provoke.  Keep it clear, and accurate, and stripped of gossip, trivia and irrelevance.  S says sssss.  Don’t “finally” (a favourite word of hers) say that.  Say that straight away.

At the end, she also said very interesting things about long words, like “grandiloquent”, and “phantasmagorical”, which she said quite small children could quite easily learn to spell out, even if they don’t know what such words mean and won’t for some time.

Friday January 11 2008

Tomorrow I will be attending a get-together-stroke-training-course for all the teachers and teaching assistants involved in these Supplementary Schools.  Among those addressing us and improving us will be Irina Tyk, the head teacher who wrote the Butterfly Book.  Earlier this week an email went round saying: Do you have a copy of the Butterfly Book?  This was because, last month, the Daily Mail gave it a write up, and ever since then demand has been ferocious, and all copies were needed for pushy parents to buy.

I do have a copy, and will be bringing it with me tomorrow:


My copy has a blander cover that the one you get to if you follow the link above.  That version has an elaborate picture of a butterfly on the front.  But the bland cover is more appropriate, I think, because the content is similarly lacking in extraneous illustration.

I suspect that the Butterfly Book illustrates one of my Deep Educational Prejudices, which is that commentators on education are divided between those who were confused at school and those who were bored.  Tyk was definitely in the confused camp, if this prejudice is correct.  Maybe tomorrow I’ll get to ask her.

In the first version of this posting my photos made the Butterfly Book look as if it was printed on gray paper.  I have now corrected this, with some photoshopping.

Wednesday January 02 2008

Gratitude to Alice Bachini-Smith who comments on this with a link to this.


Anyway, to the point of this post. Mr Redden met us for the first time, and it was likely to have been more daunting for him than for us. And to break the ice for the first class of the first day, he asked a number of us what we did during the Christmas break. When it came to my turn, I told him I played games with the family, lazed a lot. And read comics. Lots of comics. Every day.

He went ballistic, and was more than just scathing about my reading habits. Made a big deal about how reading comics was a treasonable offence, how it spoilt a person’s grasp and command of the language and corrupted his writing ability. I was young enough to feel ashamed; red-faced, tears in my eyes, hot-flushed, that sort of thing. Still standing up, hoping the ground would open up and eat me alive. You know that feeling? Happened to me a lot when I was young, probably built character or something like that.

A few minutes later Mr Redden was done with the icebreaker Part 1, and went on to Part 2. Analysing his portfolio, looking at what he “knew” about the children in his care. Looks like we have a fine soccer team, can do better on the cricket, and so on. And then he said something like “I’m particularly delighted to know that we have at least one serious creative writer in the class, someone who won the school short story medal while still in Class 7, unheard of. Well done. Who is it?”

It was my turn to stand up, and yes, I was gracious in my victory. ...

It’s a quite long post with copious comic book illustrations, one of which I have copied and cropped in a way that makes sense to and fun for me, about how he grew up in a household that loved reading.

I clicked on his education category, and found, in particular, this.

I will also, definitely, be reading this, from March 2006, and following the links in it.  Who says blog postings are here to today and gone tomorrow?  It takes very little tooking to find them here tomorrow.

Tuesday January 01 2008

When you consider what a huge contribution to the reading habit Harry Potter and his creator J. K. Rowling have made, this is actually quite important news, educationally speaking:


Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling has strongly hinted for the first time that she could write an eighth book in the series.

And it’s not just the money talking.

One of her biggest fans - her 14-year-old daughter Jessica - has already put pressure on her to revisit the character.

And her younger children - David, four, and Mackenzie, two - are likely to join the clamour for another novel as they discover the Potter books.

However, if an eighth novel were to be written, Rowling concedes it is unlikely that Harry would be the central character.

I am way too old to have actually caught Pottermania, but not so long ago I queued outside a big London bookshop with Goddaughter 2 for the latest one.  At midnight.  Pandemonium.

Not the last Harry Potter book after all?